This mid-nineteenth century saga evokes time and place perfectly, haunting and resonant the almost hallucinatory beauty of a remote Caribbean island near Jamaica. Surrounded by the silence of her isolation, a lonely young woman is abandoned to her unwilling caretakers, forever dreaming of a safety that does not exist.
The once powerful Creole family has fallen into desperate times, the woman’s profligate husband dead from his own excesses, his beautiful second wife, Annette Cosway, left to fend for herself and her two children. The undersized son is developmentally impaired, barely able to function above the level of an infant; the daughter, Antoinette, is emotionally damaged by a distant mother.
A recently emancipated slave society is no longer willing to endure the conceits of their former masters, becoming ever more hostile to those who have lived off of their efforts, growing restive and hostile in their freedom. After a violent incident, Annette Cosway loses touch with reality, her son dead in her arms. She berates her husband for his inability to protect them and is finally sent to an asylum, a victim of her madness.
Antoinette Cosway becomes a beautiful woman like her mother, but her inherited fortune renders her a pawn of fate. Given in marriage to a penniless suitor from England who has a family name (Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre fame), Antoinette’s expectations are quickly dashed in the arms of a man who does not love her.
For a time, the couple is distracted by the transports of their physical passion, but even this pleasure is exhausting in the island heat, burning to cinders in a short time. Antoinette seeks the aid of her former nanny, Christophine, an obeah woman who gives her a love potion and a warning.
The sun shines too brightly, obscuring the decay that lies beneath the beauty as Antoinette retreats to the fevered images of her imagination in lieu of the happiness she was promised. Rochester longs to escape his terrible bargain as well; Antoinette clings to the remnants of her dignity and disordered mind. Their two worlds cannot coexist.
Finally, the madwoman in the tower is overtaken by her disordered mind, shut away from the world in an unforgiving climate of disinterest, banking the cold fires of a new hell in England: “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.”
Rhys reveals the decadent, incestuous societies in which such women flourished in the West Indies, resented by the former slaves, ripe for the plucking from their exotic vines by English gentlemen in search of fortune. The truth lies somewhere between the perspectives of Antoinette and Rochester, somewhere between wilderness and civilization.
Hypnotic and disturbing, Antoinette Cosway’s tortured existence is a stunning indictment of an indifferent society, even Rochester victimized by the constraints of honor and propriety.